SI Vault
Steve Rushin
June 12, 1995
The all-out attacking style and rich history of English soccer make it a game with worldwide appeal
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June 12, 1995

Biff, Bang, Wallop!

The all-out attacking style and rich history of English soccer make it a game with worldwide appeal

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Relaxing in his suburban London semidetached the next morning, Kasey Keller could only laugh. In his First Division match the previous night, Millwall had lost 3-1 to Port Vale. Earlier this season, however, Millwall eliminated Premier Leaguers Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Cup. The latter victory was sealed with a penalty-kick save by Keller—he caught the ball, no less—while the former win came at historic Highbury. In the Millwall family section that night, mothers sat and wept for joy.

The depth of feeling for football here fascinates and frightens Keller, for whom at least a dozen south Londoners have named their children Kasey. ("Boys and girls," notes his wife, Kristin.) And yet Millwall fans are reputedly the worst behaved in England, whose fans are reputedly the worst behaved in the world. The signature song of Millwall backers goes, "No one likes us, we don't care," and there is evidence to support both halves of that claim.

"I remember my first pitch invasion," says Keller, 25, who was raised on a chicken farm outside Olympia, Wash., and played soccer at the University of Portland. "It was in an FA Cup match my first season. It's just after halftime, and in the corner of my eye I see people fighting on the pitch, and the police, and I'm kind of looking around going, 'Uh, we're still playing here.' I see a fight just to my left, on the sideline, and this guy suddenly comes running right across my 18 [yard line], looks at me, says, 'Oh, hi, Kasey,' then keeps running and punches a cop in the back of the head. And I'm thinking, What is going on here?"

Keller's first season was Millwall's last in its sinister south London ground, the infamous Den on Cold Blow Lane. "Cold Blow Lane on a dark, wet night might be a perfect setting for a Jack the Ripper horror film," wrote Simon Inglis in The Football Grounds of Great Britain. "There are mysterious yards full of scrap, malodorous goings-on behind high fences, tower blocks looming in the distance...."

"My favorite story from the Old Den," says Keller, "is about an ex-Millwall player who came back with another team and scored. That doesn't go over well to begin with, but then he runs the length of the pitch and really gives it to the fans. Pretty soon he goes to take a corner kick and feels a tap on his shoulder. He turns around, and this fan just drops him, crawls back over the fence and disappears in the crowd. That was the Old Den."

Keller is seated in his own den, beneath a framed photograph of the beautiful New Den, where the Lions now play in front of luxury skyboxes. Celebratory, souvenir-seeking fans stripped Keller down to his compression shorts in the middle of the final game at the Old Den. Another Lion was stripped completely naked. The team simply redressed in practice gear and resumed the match.

Keller is eloquent and incisive, and he knows that his comic war stories spun another way are tales of hoolie violence—"the English disease," as hooliganism was termed at its nadir in the 1980s. So which is the case?

"Don't get me wrong," he says. "If you want to fight, someone will be happy to fight you, don't worry about that. But that's true anywhere. The fights here are almost always between rival fans who want to fight each other. Millwall has such a bad reputation that if there's a very minor scuffle in the stands, the papers will say, 'Fan disgrace!' And, 'Oh, by the way, it was a tremendous game, Millwall winning with a goal in the last minute.'

"People in America only see the bad stuff and think it's not safe to attend a game in England," he concludes. "It's the same thing here: All you hear about is how everyone in America carries a gun and is shooting at each other all the time. That's not accurate either, but that's what people think."

Keller's neighbors are Crystal Palace supporters, and the season's one familiar image for Americans was broadcast from the Palace ground, Selhurst Park, just three miles from Keller's house. At Selhurst in January, Man United striker Eric Cantona, England's reigning Professional Footballer of the Year, went into the stands to kung fu kick a Palace fan in the chest. The French player was sentenced to two weeks in jail and banned, until Sept. 30, from playing professionally anywhere on earth. He presumably can play on Venus, but surely even the Venusians know all about Cantona by now.

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